Why Aren’t You Asking Questions?

It’s the kickoff meeting. You are the lead designer on the project, and this is the first meeting with everyone in the room. Your client is reciting her wish list, and you’re taking diligent notes—probably with cute, relatable doodles.

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An hour passes, and you’ve barely said a sentence. You’re nodding your head, scarcely making eye contact. You have some thoughts, but you aren’t speaking up. Why aren’t you speaking up?

You’ve likely been burned in the past. Perhaps you’ve shared some ideas and they were turned down. You have felt embarrassed in meetings. Projects that you put your heart and soul into were changed at the last minute without your consultation or discarded, apparently without a second thought.

Now, while it’s admirable to be an agreeable, easy-to-work-with colleague, being quiet and keeping your head down isn’t the answer because this is not a production line. You are a designer, and part of your job is contributing to the conversation.

It’s a designer’s job to ask good questions#section1

You want to do your best work and meet your client’s needs, so playing an active role in the conversation is vital. To extract the most information you can from your client, you must ask questions. Lots of questions. Think of it like playing detective, gathering clues and working to understand the players in the game.

Laura Kalbag writes, “As designers, we can’t expect other people to know the right language to describe exactly why they think something doesn’t work. We need to know the right questions that prompt a client to give constructive criticism and valuable feedback.”

They are looking to you as the professional to not only listen to their needs, but to also be able to identify and understand their unexpressed needs.

It is not the client’s job to know exactly what their logo should be or how their website should function. That’s your job. They are coming to you to share ideas, to express concerns, likes, and dislikes. They are looking to you to help guide them to a solution.

Clients will always ask you to make their logo bigger, prescribe solutions, and ask you to do things that will make you smack your forehead. You can roll your eyes at how much they don’t understand about design or you can roll up your sleeves and begin practicing your craft by helping them clarify what they need.

Mike Monteiro from his brilliant and on point book Design is a Job

First, understand the end users’ needs#section2

It’s pretty likely that your client isn’t the main user of the website or product you are designing. Even if they are amazing at articulating exactly their tastes and preferences, it’s beside the point because they are not the target audience.

If you are fortunate enough to be on a project that dedicates resources to user research, familiarize yourself with its findings. If you do not have access to this information, ask a few questions about who the end user is and what their needs are to better understand the target audience you are actually designing for:

  • Who exactly do you anticipate will be using this website?
  • What problem is this website solving for them? Or
  • What will they accomplish by using this website?
  • What are their pain points?

Once you establish who the end user is, try to phrase your upcoming questions in a way that encourages the client to see through the eyes of the end user, not their own. User experience consultant and writer Paul Boag simplifies this on 24ways.org: “A client’s natural inclination will be to give you his personal opinion on the design. This is reinforced because you ask them what they think of the design. Instead ask them what their users will think of the design.”

It is also possible that the client thinks they understand what the end user needs, but they are only working from assumptions. This is apparent when sweeping generalizations and blanket statements are made. As Laura Kalbag says, “Throughout the design process, we need to check our hidden assumptions about our users. We should also ensure any feedback we get isn’t based upon an unfounded assumption. If the client says the users won’t like it, ask why. Uncover the assumption—maybe it’s worth testing with real users?”

Establish attainable business goals#section3

This is a conversation that I still struggle with. A lot of companies are good at coming up with lofty business goals that can be interpreted into almost anything, and are usually difficult to measure.

The conversation may start out up in the clouds, but by talking about business goals you are helping to break down assumptions, learn about your client’s current expectations, and set their expectations going forward.

For example, if the assumption is that by redesigning their website they will generate more leads, you need to establish clear language around what that means and what success looks like to them.

Daniel Ritzenthaler suggests “Taking the Guesswork Out of Design” by using “a modified acceptance criteria exercise [to set] clear and powerful goals.”

<img src="https://alistapart.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/asking-questions-fig1.png" alt="
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Ritzenthaler says, “Acceptance criteria for design is a great way to [flesh] out deeper, possibly unknown, intentions that will help the designer and project owner make better decisions and dodge surprises later in the process.”

Make sure you are asking the right people#section4

The kickoff meeting is a great place to ask questions because, more than likely, the right people will be in the room.

If you have any control over who is required to attend, make sure the meeting includes everyone who has decision-making power, is assumed to have power, or is an opinion leader inside the organization.

I find that a lot gets lost in translation when a question filters up three levels of management and then trickles back down to you. When you hear information from the source, you get the original version and you also have the chance to ask for more clarity.

If you are not sure who the key players are, here are a few preparatory questions you can ask to get that information:

  • Who initiated this project?
  • Who will have the final decision with this project?
  • Who has the ability to cancel or postpone this project?

Ask a lot of open-ended questions#section5

Once you understand who you are designing for, what the major goals are, and who the key players are, you will be ready to start discussing the details of the actual project.

Avoid simple yes or no questions—stick with something open-ended so you will get more information. Ask any question that comes to mind that will help you better understand the issue at hand.

Ask follow-up questions if there is something that still isn’t clear to you. You may have to ask the same question a few different ways before getting a response that gives you the information you’re looking for.

Read between the lines#section6

In one person’s mind, “add more pictures” could mean a photo gallery of thumbnails at the bottom on the page. Another person might imagine this as the giant background image that they saw on someone else’s site and they want exactly what that person has. And yet a third person is picturing replacing most of the text on the page with infographics.

Here’s an example: you are working on a web design and the client doesn’t think there are enough images on the mockup you provided. Ask:

  • What value will adding more images provide? For whom?
  • Are images available?
  • Does a photographer need to be hired?

If you find out their solution was to purchase stock photography, dig a little deeper.

  • Is stock photography genuine enough for their audience?
  • Will it convey the value they were hoping for?
  • If a visitor to the website found out it was stock photography, would that affect their perception of the company?

These are likely questions they have not yet thought through. By asking these questions, you are helping the client see the bigger picture and preserve the value of the brand or message.

Try generic questions#section7

If you’re not sure what the right question is, you can keep it really simple by using one of the following go-to phrases:

  • Why?
  • Could you elaborate?
  • Would you describe that for me?
  • What does that look like to you?

Make sure you are clear and concise. Do not muddy up your question with “ummm,” “er,” “like,” “whatever,” or “you know.” A clear question has a better chance of getting a clear answer.

You’re going to annoy someone#section8

Truth is, it is possible that some people may get annoyed with the questions. Don’t let this deter you. It isn’t personal. You have a job to do and clues you need to gather. Explain why it is necessary that you truly understand the problem you are all here to solve together, and explain that in the long run it will likely save a lot of time. Thank them for their understanding and cooperation (even if they are being quite the opposite of cooperative).

If a client appears frustrated or annoyed that you are asking so many questions, it may be because they thought they had it all figured out. You just made them realize that they haven’t even begun to figure it out.

What was supposed to be a “quick” web design has become a bigger project, one that requires real thought and effort. They may feel frustrated that it won’t be the quick fix they initially expected. That’s not your fault! You’re doing the client a favor in the long run by ensuring that all parties are on the same page and making the best decisions together.

Read the room#section9

If your client comes across as agitated by speaking more loudly, constantly interrupting, or suddenly becoming very short with responses, try to assess how you are coming off in this meeting. Are you talking more loudly or interrupting? Do you think he feels like his answers are being heard?

In that scenario, taking a more laid-back approach by leaning back in your chair a little, speaking somewhat more slowly and softly, and relaxing your face may help the meeting move in a more productive direction.

Test engagement#section10

You need your clients to be engaged to get the most information. If they are not making eye contact, not participating in the conversation, or are busy on their phones, they may not be engaged.

By simply pausing and allowing silence, you may be able reengage the client. Or test their engagement by asking a couple of questions:

  • Are we discussing what you had hoped we would?
  • Is there anything we haven’t covered that you hoped we would?

Take a break#section11

Stepping away for a few minutes can clear the mind and calm the nerves.

A five-minute break will keep your client engaged by allowing them to check their emails, text, and get a few seconds of relief from their FOMO. Use this time to assess the situation and formulate your next questions.

Play nice#section12

Don’t give the impression that you are trying to prove them wrong; this isn’t a pissing contest. Approach the conversation with genuine curiosity and a lot of empathy. You are both working toward the same goals here.

  • When you ask a question, really take time to listen to the response.
  • Do not interrupt.
  • Be supportive as they give their answers and thank them for giving you the additional information.
  • Don’t be afraid to use an awkward silence to your benefit. Chances are the client feels awkward, too, and will start talking, giving you even more information.

Asking great questions takes practice. Lifehack has some tips worth reading on how to be amazingly good at asking questions.

Your work reflects your level of understanding#section13

Until we have the ability to project images with our minds (why don’t we have this yet?), or unless your client is an amazing sketch artist, asking questions and piecing the clues together is our most effective tool to understand their expectations, and help them see the bigger picture along the way.

If you leave the room without asking any questions, there is no way you can really understand what is being asked of you. You might annoy someone along the way, but your work will have so much more meaning and, in the end, your clients and their end users will see the added value in your work.

About the Author

Janice Gervais

Janice Gervais started out as a front-end web developer back when tables and inline CSS were cool. A big-picture thinker, she has gravitated toward UX design and web strategy over the past eight years. A good day for her is a day with a stack of sticky notes and a fresh whiteboard marker, and she is not one to shy away from a good debate or a well-made donut. Janice lives with her family in Michigan and pretends to be a farmer on the weekends, tending her garden and chickens.

17 Reader Comments

  1. Great article, but its really worrying that something like that has to be written. I don’t really understand how you would even begin designing anything without understanding it/asking questions.

  2. As Brendan writes above, I am struggling to think how we can start planning a design without asking questions. As if a chef is mixing a few ingredients without knowing what dish is expected, or an architect layout out a random model of walls without a model and without knowing the purpose of the building or home.

  3. It’s good to see this article published. Through experience we have delivered a far better quality of web design to our clients by taking just as much time to develop the brief as we have working on the concepts. In some instances, we have even spent the day on-site working for a client to better understand what they do and who their customer/target audience is.

    We call it the equivalent of method acting. Getting under the skin of a client, to better understand their brand, their audience and how to sell themselves to potential new customers.

    In many ways, the best results come from open communications with a client and in some ways a collaboration too. We’re not afraid to educate clients. After all, it’s important to explain why some things will work for the web and why some won’t.

  4. Thanks for comments, I absolutely agree that simply asking questions feels like common sense. Yet time and time again I’m invited to a meeting and one side is simply delegating their wishes while the other side simply nods and takes notes. I think with some personality types it’s more difficult to speak up and ask for clarity – I hoping some of the tips outlined here will give some guidance and confidence to those who are not completely comfortable in this role yet. Thanks so much for reading.

  5. I know that everyone has commented, “How could you *not* know this already??”, but I’m really thankful for pieces like this. I am a senior designer, but am still learning to be comfortable leading meetings and struggle speaking in front of groups (especially one made up of high-up stakeholders, yikes!).

    So, I really and truly appreciate this how-to. Your comment hit the nail on the head for me, “I think with some personality types it’s more difficult to speak up and ask for clarity – I hoping some of the tips outlined here will give some guidance and confidence to those who are not completely comfortable in this role yet.”

    Thanks for this article!

  6. Thanks Janice – Really interesting article that struck a chord with me. I’ve probably been in a similar position more times than I care to admit.

    Unlike other comments seems to suggest it’s not a case of failing to ask questions as part of gathering requirements but more trying to tease out the end goals and develop better solutions through questioning. If you’re lacking in confidence or there’s a power divide in the room it can be difficult to question someone who seems to be in a position to have all the answers – that’s assuming you’ve managed to get the direct stakeholder there with you – many organisations will dictate strategy and requirements which you’ll receive second hand and it can almost feel pointless questioning the messenger.

  7. This is such basic stuff when working with clients… I’m always amazed at the designers who dive head first into a project barely asking questions to their clients. I simply do not understand how you could do quality work this way…

  8. This article is a good example of how to get user requirements. Your example of getting user goals is very similar to how agile teams get user stories. Which is fantastic.

    For too long, a lot of developers and designers are getting requirements for the sake of getting requirements. By having that mindset, it’s hard to design/build an awesome product.

  9. I’m honored you all read the article and took the time to add a comment. Thank you so much.

    After I read Design Is A Job by Mike Monteiro, I felt like I understood more about why some designers just dive right in and start designing without first understanding their parameters.

    In my opinion they are confusing design with art.

    Art does not typically work within boundaries. Art is an expression of the artist, not the result of a conversation where a thousand questions were asked and compromise was made over and over.

    Design on the other hand is about solving problems. Understanding your parameters and being creative within them.

    These designers who dive right in may see themselves as an artist type, or they may be in a position that expects them to work as an artist.

    I have certainly worked on teams where the “creatives” were treated as if they were born with a talent that gave them some sort of superpower, so sorry about the rest of you.

    Being treated as an artist and expected to just intuitively know what the right answers are is a real pressure that many designers work with. Asking questions in this situation implies you do not intuitively know the right answer, and maybe you weren’t born with a superpower.

    Having more conversations in your workplace and on your team about your role can help clarify what design actually is.

    Your superpower is your ability to ask really smart questions, see the bigger picture, and be really damn creative within the parameters.

  10. This is a very refreshing article, and very poignant as its part of the reason I left my previous role.

    Design wasn’t very well respected (something i committed years to change), and I often found myself starved of client contact. In turn we had lots of client frustration as we continued to design blind as our design team worked from, internal demands, opinions and guesses of what the client wanted.

    After a stroke of luck, design was offered the chance to go through next years design requirements with the client face-to-face at there premises. It was a breath of fresh air for both of us, I think it was the first time the client thought we understood them. I would listen without interruption, note down comments and rationalize them ready to question when appropriate. Sometimes my questions would come with a new mock up as it better illustrated the point. They were excited by the barrage of questions that would come as we forged the strategy for the year ahead.

    We were finally on the same wavelength, my sadness was trying to relay this when I got back to the office. The resistance I found from my boss and project managers was staggering. Its as if they were so used to the ‘ask no questions we will give you a solution’ it became a company value, at the massive frustration of the client and miss-direction of the product.

    The worst part, one day I was at the clients office and they introduced me to one of there colleagues as the ‘acceptable face of my company’

    The ironic thing was I wasn’t doing anything miraculous, I was just finally doing what felt natural, asking questions so I could do my job!

  11. You have to make things very clear with the person you’re developing/designing for. Often times, the customer himself does not know what he wants.

  12. Thank you for a great article. You’ve articulated the issues well. As a Project Manager, I see these same challenges. Often times, the client only has a general idea of what they want. I love being the detective and helping them to discover what it is we can really do for them. It is an exciting process to bring their web app alive!

  13. Very good article, I have been on both sides of the equation, I have been a web designer and a web design customer. When my web design company met with me, I felt uncomfortable because they were not asking me any questions. Therefore, I refused to sign the contract that they had prepared and kept insisting that I sign. I just could not understand how someone who claims to have over a decade of experience in this field was not aware that asking questions is an integral part of this process.

  14. Hi Janice. Asking questions is also a responsibility of the client. Having said that sometimes the web designer may not be inclined to respond to specific client needs. A real estate website is a good example. There are many great responsive real estate website designs but when the requirement for a third party IDX feed enters the “needs” equation, it can cause a number of issue such as render blocking script. The web designer points to the IDX plugin and the plugin developer points to the website design. This catch 22 is all too common for the client. Any thoughts on how this can be fixed? An article on the specific needs of a real estate site design would be a great addition to this site

  15. The front-end designers are always the ones that get the most of the website. They are the most criticized as well, but yet the back-end developers are the ones that have the most hard work.

  16. Your site doesn’t contain any information. It would be better if you add some more content in the site so that people who are new to the site can understand the site details. So modify our site by including more content so that it increases its visibility

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